Having a sense of purpose linked to better memory

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Finding purpose in life certainly isn’t easy. There are endless roads an individual can choose to walk, but only a select few will prove worth traveling. Just in case you needed an extra reason to prioritize purpose, researchers from Florida State University find a link between an individual’s sense of purpose and their ability to remember vivid details.

Notably, while both a sense of purpose and strong cognitive function help when it comes to memory skills and recollection, only purpose helped specifically regarding memory vividness and coherence. This research focused on memories related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Personal memories serve really important functions in everyday life,” says lead study author Angelina Sutin, a professor in the College of Medicine, in a university release. “They help us to set goals, control emotions and build intimacy with others. We also know people with a greater sense of purpose perform better on objective memory tests, like remembering a list of words. We were interested in whether purpose was also associated with the quality of memories of important personal experiences because such qualities may be one reason why purpose is associated with better mental and physical health.”

Close to 800 people took part in this research. Each person reported on their personal sense of purpose and completed a series of cognitive tests in January and February 2020, just before the pandemic began. Then, in July 2020, researchers brought everyone back to answer some questions about their experiences during the pandemic.

Purpose in life also leads to more positivity

Participants with a sense of purpose in life told researchers their memories were more accessible, coherent, and vivid than other participants with less purpose. People with more purpose also shared more sensory details, recalled their memories in the first-person, and generally reported more positive feelings than negativity when asked to recall something.

For what it’s worth, the study doesn’t suggest that depression or negative thoughts have a detrimental impact on memory vividness. Depressive symptoms had little to no effect on the ability to recall vivid details in memories among study subjects.

This isn’t the first research project to establish an association between purpose and stronger episodic memory, but it is the first to show a link between purpose and memory richness.

“We chose to measure the ability to recall memories associated with the COVID-19 pandemic because the pandemic is an event that touched everyone, but there has been a wide range of experiences and reactions to it that should be apparent in memories,” says study co-author Martina Luchetti, an assistant professor in FSU’s College of Medicine.

“Memories help people to sustain their well-being, social connections and cognitive health,” concludes study co-author Antonio Terracciano. “This research gives us more insight into the connections between a sense of purpose and the richness of personal memories. The vividness of those memories and how they fit into a coherent narrative may be one pathway through which purpose leads to these better outcomes.”

The study is published in the journal Memory.